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Cuba’s crossroads

A mic in one hand and her face mask in the other, a singer entertains people awaiting their jabs at a coronavirus vaccination centre in Havana, June 2021. ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI/REUTERS

Who said living next door to a superpower was easy? Not the Cubans, that’s for sure.

After the US intervened to help drive out the Spanish in 1898, the relationship between the two countries has been chequered. Cuba has been hectored and bullied by its northern neighbour ever since. The island is the biggest in the Caribbean, with Havana just 370 kilometres from the glitter of Miami.

With the Spanish vacated, the Yankees moved in – investing massively in the sugar industry and stage-managing the government. The Platt Amendment, passed by Congress after the Spanish-American conflict, put US interests front and centre, as well as securing the infamous naval base at Guantánamo Bay. Rum and Coke (the highball cocktail known as Cuba libre) became the national drink and baseball a Cuban obsession.

A series of corrupt dictators followed, linking their fortunes to US corporate interests in sugar and rum. In the 1920s and 1930s Havana became an exotic destination for wealthy northerners. It was a convenient spot for the mafia to launder money while profiting from gambling and prostitution. A local elite (white with Spanish roots) prospered while the poor majority (mestizo and black) starved in feudal conditions in the countryside.

All that changed on New Year’s Day 1959, when the charismatic young lawyer Fidel Castro and his followers marched into Havana, set up headquarters at the Hilton hotel and proclaimed a revolutionary, democratic government in the service of ordinary Cubans.

Hours beforehand, the dictator Fulgencio Batista and a small band of loyalists had fled to the neighbouring Dominican Republic. But not before looting the treasury of a small fortune.

As Fidel and his cohorts began to nationalize US companies wealthy Cubans jumped ship. They funnelled their cash out of the country, shuttered their mansions and headed to Miami and New York.

Castro’s initial policy goals were rooted in social justice and equity: land reform was a priority, followed by healthcare and literacy.

But Washington wasn’t having any of it.

In an attempt to throttle the revolution, they halted the import of Cuban sugar which comprised the bulk of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. Sensing a potential satellite on America’s doorstep, Moscow stepped in, agreeing to buy all the island’s sugar. This paved the way for Soviet economic support of the Cuban experiment, until the USSR’s 1989 collapse.

As Cuba’s dependence on Moscow deepened and Fidel revealed his communist sympathies, President Kennedy imposed a full-scale trade embargo to strangle the economy and overthrow the new government in Havana.

Apart from a brief rapprochement during the Obama era, the embargo has remained in place for 60 years.

Today, the old revolutionaries are nearly gone. With Fidel’s health in decline, his brother, Raúl, became both President and head of the Communist Party (CPC) in 2006. Twelve years later, Raúl passed the presidency to Miguel Díaz-Canel, a hand-picked apparatchik and unabashed supporter of the revolution. This past April, the 61-year-old Díaz-Canel became head of the CPC when Raúl stepped down – at the age of 89. It was the end of an era: Cuba without a Castro in command for the first time since 1959.

Protesters against the US trade embargo on Cuba drive past the US Embassy in Havana in a motorcade, 28 March 2021. ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI/REUTERS

Whither the revolution?

Is the revolution in jeopardy? Maybe. Discontent is now visible. Unprecedented demonstrations erupted across the island in late July in the midst of skyrocketing shortages of medicines, basic foodstuffs and essential consumer goods. Social media quickly spread images of the protests and the inevitable police crackdown before state censors imposed an internet blackout.

But the new leadership shows no signs of deviating from Castro’s vision. Like other Party stalwarts, Díaz-Canel is suspicious of vocal critics. When a small, noisy group of artists and musicians (the San Isidro Movement) agitated in 2020 for more freedom and increased internet access, he dismissed them as ‘mercenaries’, ‘Trumpists’ and stooges of US imperialism.

The Cuban state is nervous about change it cannot control and is heavy-handed in its treatment of opposition voices. Dissidents are harassed by security agents and sometimes jailed. This gives ammunition to critics of Cuba’s human rights record. But there is context to the paranoia, including a well-documented history of Washington’s manifold attempts to sabotage the revolution. For example, the US spends millions of dollars annually on anti-Cuban messaging, bankrolling the Miami-based Radio Martí and TV Martí, all beaming anti-government propaganda at the island.

Díaz-Canel and his colleagues will need all the support they can muster in the next few years.

The economy is in a tailspin – the island faces its most serious challenge since the country lost its Russian patron. The post-Soviet years, what the Cubans call the ‘special period’, saw crushing shortages of basic consumer goods, staple foodstuffs and petrol. Cuba survived, but barely, buoyed by a booming tourism industry, millions of dollars in remittances from Cubans living in the US, and subsidized oil from Venezuela.

Tensions eased under President Obama. His historic visit to Havana in March 2016 stirred hopes that Washington would relax sanctions. And, indeed, there was a brief reprieve.

American business interests were gleeful, sensing new markets and ripe investment opportunities. After Obama’s olive branch, dozens of trade delegations headed to the island hoping to expand commercial ties. (The US Chamber of Commerce has urged an end to the embargo since the 1990s.)

But it was not to be. Pressured by the influential Cuban exile lobby in Florida, Trump tightened the screws. He penalized companies shipping oil from Venezuela, barred American cruise ships and capped US remittances – estimated at nearly $3 billion a year. As a parting gift to the Cuban-American lobby he reclassified Cuba as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’, joining Iran, North Korea and Syria.

Trump also targeted Cuba’s much-lauded medical co-operation programmes. The country has been sending doctors abroad since the 1960s to assist with health emergencies. An estimated 28,000 Cuban medical professionals ply their trade overseas, mainly in Africa and Latin America. During the pandemic Cuba sent medical teams to dozens of countries, including to northern Italy in the early days, when Covid-19 was first raging through Lombardy.

The government says its export of doctors is rooted in ‘solidarity’ with those in need. Even President Obama was impressed. ‘No-one should deny the service that thousands of Cuban doctors have delivered for the poor and suffering,’ he said during his Havana visit. The scheme is also the country’s largest foreign currency earner, hauling in nearly $8 billion a year. (The doctors themselves are paid less than $100 a month, a salary level that has often been a source of dissatisfaction.)

Revival blues

Other key sources of foreign funds are also in trouble. The pandemic gutted the island’s tourism industry. When Cuba went into lockdown in March 2020, closing its borders, tourist numbers collapsed – from over four million in 2019 to fewer than one million in 2020.

Overall, the economy shrank by 11 per cent.

Essential foodstuffs like chicken, rice, pasta and cooking oil are in short supply. Ration cards, in place since the 1960s and a key element in food security, are being phased out in a move to ‘modernize’ the economy.

Díaz-Canel has pledged to continue reforms introduced by Raúl Castro more than a decade ago: allowing small businesses to expand and slowly increasing internet access.

Last year Cuba rejigged its messy dual currency system, adopting a single currency pegged to the dollar. Economists argue the move will spark inflation and lead to more belt-tightening and shortages.

Cubans are no strangers to economic hardship. Living standards plunged after the Soviets pulled out in 1991. The next few years will be equally tough. Whatever changes are in the works will need to bear fruit quickly.

US President Joe Biden’s administration could make things easier by restoring diplomatic links and dismantling the blockade. But, so far, Cuba has not been a priority on his foreign policy agenda.

Older Cubans remember the bad old days of despotism and are fiercely proud of the revolution’s achievements, especially in education and healthcare. (The country has a lower infant mortality rate than the US and literacy is close to 100 per cent.) But Cuba’s youth want more. Access to the internet and social media, though limited, has opened their eyes. They are impatient with limited freedoms and a controlling state.

For now, an economic revival will depend on tourism returning. In the first two months of this year numbers were down by more than 90 per cent. A complete recovery hinges on how quickly Canada, Spain, Germany, the UK and France (the top five source countries for tourists) can vaccinate their citizens and relax travel restrictions.

In that regard Cuba may be able to help. The country’s impressive neighbourhood healthcare system managed to keep the pandemic largely in check until a third wave hit last spring. Even then, rates of infection were well below the rest of Latin America.

Astonishingly, for a small, impoverished nation, Cuba has a world-class biotech industry and has been pursuing its own Covid-19 vaccines. No easy task given the US embargo on essential chemicals necessary for their manufacture.

There are five vaccines in development. Two of them have entered final clinical trials and one, the three-shot Abdala vaccine, received regulatory approval for emergency use in July. The only problem is an island-wide shortage of syringes, a product of the US blockade.

Despite this Díaz-Canel has said his government hopes to ‘immunize the entire Cuban population before the end of 2021 with its own vaccines’.

If the country’s vaccination programme is successful it will be an impressive accomplishment in the face of enormous odds.

There is even talk of offering the jab to tourists – for a small fee.

Exiles and missiles
In April 1961, a CIA-backed invasion by 1,400 US-trained Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón) became a blunder of major proportions and an embarrassment for the US. Che Guevara reportedly sent President Kennedy a note after the botched invasion thanking him for making the revolution ‘stronger than ever’.
Things got worse.
At the height of the Cold War, Cuba invited the Russians to install missiles on the island to fend off a feared US invasion. A full naval blockade by the US quickly followed, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 – a month-long stand-off between the US, the USSR and Cuba that brought the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. After much posturing on both sides, the Russian missiles were withdrawn in return for a US promise not to invade.

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